The death penalty, or “capital punishment” if one prefers a friendlier term, is the planned killing of an individual by a government or ruling entity in response to a crime. It is considered the just punishment for a person legally convicted of an action which is deemed a safety threat to society.
Most states in the U.S. which allow for the death penalty due so because of murder. Capital punishment is a legal penalty at the federal level in the United States for murder as well, along with treason, espionage, piracy, certain drug-trafficking offenses, or the attempted murder of a juror, court officer, or witness in some situation.
As of 2018, every prisoner under a federal death sentence was convicted of aggravated murder. There were 63 offenders on “death row” at the Federal Bureau of Prisons as of September 2018. The U.S. military has a death penalty as well, and the branches have executed 135 people since 1916. That includes Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed on January 31, 1945 under the conviction of desertion.
There are passionate people on both sides of this debate, so it is imperative to take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the death penalty with an open mind whenever possible.
List of the Advantages of the Death Penalty
1. A sentence of life in prison is disproportionate to the capital crime.
Almost all death sentences handed out by the United States or state-level justice systems are for aggravated murder. Only two people were on death row for a non-murder offense when the Supreme Court last ruled on the validity of the death penalty in 2008. Both inmates were convicted of the aggravated rate of a child under the age of 13, including Patrick Kennedy who was sentenced for raping his step-daughter.
“As it relates to crimes against individuals… the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim’s life was not taken,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2008 when the sentence was overturned. If a convicted criminal receives life in prison for taking a life, proponents argue that this is not justice because the outcome is disproportionate to the action taken.
2. The death penalty can provide a deterrent against violent crime.
When many criminologists define deterrence in terms of the death penalty, they are looking at how the presence of this sentencing can stop violent acts by preventing someone to commit them in the first place. It becomes a value proposition. Do I want to risk my life because I have a willingness right now to take the life of another? In that circumstance, 88% of criminologists agree that the presence of the death penalty is not useful.
What we must look at for this advantage is the actual convicted person. Capital punishment creates an irreversible deterrent that the murderer will never get the chance to take a life again. It is a form of incapacitation that helps to protect society by preventing future crime in this manner.
“Capital punishment is likely to deter more than other punishments because people fear death more than anything else,” said Ernest van den Haag, Professor of Jurisprudence at Fordham University. “They fear most death deliberately inflicted by law and scheduled by the courts. Whatever people fear most is likely to deter the most.”
3. It doesn’t need to be carried out with brutality.
The focus of the death penalty in the United States today is focused on ending life as quickly and as peacefully as possible. That is why the process is typically carried out through the use of a lethal injection, creating a medically-imposed death that involves the least amount of pain possible.
At various points in history, the death penalty was carried out by beheading, stoning, crucifixion, electrocution, shooting, or hanging. Saudi Arabia still carries out sword-based executions, while India, Japan, and Singapore use hanging. China uses a single shot to the back of the head, while Indonesia uses a firing squad.
4. The death penalty does not re-victimize the affected family.
There is rightful sympathy or empathy directed toward the family of someone accused of a capital crime. These people are losing a loved one because of this legal structure. The family of the victim has also lost someone as well. The person who does not deserve sympathy is the criminal who decided to commit the capital act (usually aggravated murder) in the first place. When the death penalty is one of the possible consequences that someone faces for their conduct, then it shields the family of the victim from another form of victimization.
If given life without parole, there is always the possibility that the criminal could discuss their side of the case, describe the actions they took, or issue threats to other members of the family. Capital punishment eventually stops this issue so that the victim’s family can feel like they can be safe again.
5. It eliminates the possibility of an escape and future victims.
Drug lord Joaquin Guzman, better known as “El Chapo,” has a long history of being captured and escaping from maximum security prisons. In 2001, with the help of guards that he bribed, he escaped in a dirty laundry cart, and then into the trunk of a waiting Monte Carlo. He hid in tunnels for days when captured in Mazatlan in 2014. He then escaped through a tunnel in 2015 out of Mexico’s top-security prison.
When there is a life in prison sentence, then an individual has nothing to lose with their effort to escape. What can the criminal justice system do to that person except add more time to their life sentence? By using capital punishment, this threat disappears – which means there will be no future victims either.
6. The application of capital punishment in just ways can limit prison overpopulation issues.
People are living longer today than arguably at any other time in history. California’s criminal justice system became so overcrowded with prisoners that the federal courts had to step in to order changes or risk letting convicted prisoners loose because there was no room to house them. The state has the largest death room in the country, and with new capital convictions happening every month, their prison ran out of room.
There were 750 people on death row in California in 2015, up from 646 in 2006. By managing this process so that it is efficient, including any appeals or pleadings which are legally permitted, it becomes possible to manage the population and limit costs without creating the potential for harm in the rest of society.
List of the Disadvantages of the Death Penalty
1. It is the ultimate denial of human rights when implemented.
Amnesty International describes the implementation of capital punishment like this. “The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights,” the organization says. “It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. It violates the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. There can never be any justification for torture or cruel treatment.”
The definition of justice can be a tricky element. How a society chooses to punish its offenders is more reflective of them than it is the choices that criminals make. Sparing someone’s life, even if that person took the life of another, takes vengeance out of the scenario. Being pro-life by definition means that one must be for every life.
2. The death penalty can execute someone who is possible innocent.
Ever since the United States reinstated the death penalty after a Supreme Court ruling allowed for it as part of the justice system, over 1,400 people have been executed by the state or federal government. Courts in the U.S. don’t usually entertain a claim of innocence until after the convicted individual dies of natural causes or goes through with the execution. There are 15 cases where there is strong evidence to suggest innocence out of this number, with the latest being Carlton Michael Gary, who was executed in 2018 by the state of Georgia.
A police statement withheld from the defense indicated that the witness who identified Gary in court was actually asleep at the time and that she could not describe or identify her attacker. DNA evidence left at the scene excluded him as well. Improper handling of evidence and a lack of presentation of other items were also part of the issue, along with a lack of federal review despite all of these concerns.
Even one innocent person being put to death by the state is too many.
3. The cost to prosecute the death penalty is much higher than other cases.
When the state of Oklahoma examined the differences in cases where capital punishment was the desired outcome sought with a conviction rather than life in prison, the overall cost of pursuing the death penalty was 3.2 times higher. This data is similar to that found in a review of 15 state studies that looked at the cost of this issue and found that seeking the death penalty raises the average cost of a case by over $700,000. Even the most conservative estimates from this information finds that there is a $110,000 increase in expense.
When you incorporate the time spent on death row, the cost of the lengthy appeals process in the United States, and the issues with secure housing, it can cost over $1 million more to proceed with capital punishment instead of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
4. There may not be any deterrence to crime with the death penalty in place.
“I know that in practice, the death penalty does more harm than good,” said Police Chief James Abbot of West Orange, NJ. “So, while I hang on to my theoretical views, as I’m sure many of you will, I stand before you to say that society is better off without capital punishment. Life in prison without parole in a maximum-security detention facility is the better alternative.
When examining data between states with and without the death penalty, there are five specific conclusions to draw.
- States with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without it.
- National trends do not impact local decisions by criminals to break the law, whether the death penalty is present or not.
- There is no apparent correlation between the death penalty and changes in murder rates.
- Capital punishment has no discernible effect on the killing of law enforcement officials.
- The abolition of the death penalty occurs most often in states where the murder of police officers is a very low percentage of all homicides.
In 2014, there were 14,000 murders that took place in the United States, but there were only 35 executions that took place.
5. It is used to control political messages.
The United States uses the death penalty exclusively for the punishment of crimes as defined by legal code and precedent. It is a principle which is not consistent for other countries in the world. 78% of global executions because of capital punishment come from just four countries when excluding China: Iraq, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Some countries, including Sudan and Iran, use the death penalty as a political tool. It becomes a way to punish political opponents who might want to take their country in a different direction. There were a total of 2,500 death sentences recorded in 54 countries in 2018, with about 20,000 people currently under sentence around the world at the end of the year.
6. Children are sometimes put to death through the use of capital punishment.
There are at least 97 kids who were put to death by capital punishment laws in Iran since 1990. Another 145 child executions have happened in China, the Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria – and the United States.
Scott Hain, Toronto Patterson, T.J. Jones, Napoleon Beazley, Gerald Mitchell, Shaka Sankofa, Glen McGinnis, and Steven Roach were all put to death in the United States for a crime that they committed at age 17. Sean Sellers was executed when he was 29 for a crime that he committed when he was 16.
7. There is no going back after the execution takes place.
When we carry out a death sentence, it is an irreversible sentence. Over 160 people sent to death row in the United States have either been exonerated of the crime or released because there was direct evidence of their innocence. Even though a grand jury must indict someone and then the case and sentencing are both held before another jury in the U.S., their finding that someone is guilty does not mean the individual is innocent.
Conservative estimates on the number of innocent people convicted in the United States suggest that at least 0.4% of convicted criminals are not guilty of the crimes for which they are accused. If the death penalty were not in place, then there would be time to reverse an unjust conviction.
8. The evidence obtained to justify the death penalty is sometimes tainted.
There are specific guidelines in the United States today that limit how and when law enforcement can obtain evidence during questioning. This structure of protection is not always available around the world. There are numerous people executed after being convicted during an unfair trial, often on the basis of evidence or confessions obtained through the use of torture. Some defendants were not given adequate legal representation.
Some countries even use the death penalty as a mandatory punishment for specific offenses, which means the judge cannot consider the circumstances of the crime during the sentencing phase of a trial.
9. It tends to be applied in a discriminatory way.
“The weight of the death penalty is disproportionally carried by those with less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds or belonging to a racial, ethnic, or religious minority,” writes Amnesty International. The Women Donors Network found that 95% of the elected prosecutors in the United States are white, and 79% of them are white men. In nine of the death penalty states, there was not a single elected prosecutor who came from a minority group.
Professor Katherine Beckett of the University of Washington found that jurors were 4.5 times more likely to impose a capital punishment sentence on a defendant who was black compared to a white defendant in a similar circumstance in an examination of 285 cases.
10. Family members of a victim are adversely impacted by the death penalty.
The Marquette Law Review found that when family members go through the capital punishment process after someone they love becomes a victim, they have higher levels of mental, physical, and behavioral health problems when compared to when the perpetrator receives a sentence of life in prison. Although this issue does not happen in every circumstance, some family members can feel responsible for the fact that the government is putting this criminal to death.
Proponents would argue that capital punishment provides relief because it guarantees that person can no longer harm another, but there are many families who do not feel a sense of satisfaction with this action. If they are the ones who experience loss, then there should be a way to provide input for them.
11. There are very few prison escapes that occur, and fewer that involve violent criminals.
The number of escapes from prison in the United States declined by more than 50% between 1998-2013, falling to a rate of 10.5 escapes per 10,000 prisoners in 2013. At the same time, the number of life sentences handed out by the court system has gone up by 500%. Most of the incidents that contribute to a prisoner escape come from low-security situations, like when 16 prisoners walked away from a work site and another 3 disappeared from a community work center.
Out of all of the reported escapes in 2013, only one inmate from a secured facility was able to get away.
12. Some people just don’t care.
There are people who will always decide to operate outside of the rules that society sets for safety and security. These are the criminals that filter into and out of prison consistently until they end up spending their life there. Rehabilitation doesn’t work because there is no investment to be different. The death penalty is not going to stop someone from hurting another person in this situation because the criminal is living for the thrill of the moment instead of thinking about their future consequences.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of the Death Penalty
As of May 2019, about 60% of the world’s population lives in a country, state, or province where the death penalty is a possible outcome for criminal conduct. There are 56 nations which retain the option for capital punishment for a variety of crimes, including incidents that do not include aggravated homicide.
Some countries execute people who are under the age of 18 when the crime was committed. It is used against those with intellectual or mental disabilities. There are times when it is applied after an unfair trial in clear violation of international laws and norms. “The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence,” writes Amnesty International, “not a solution to it.”
The advantages and disadvantages of the death penalty rely on several instruments to restrict its use to the most severe situations while providing states, provinces, and nations the freedom to implement it as local populations see fit. Whether it is the right or wrong approach is ultimately up to you to decide.
Natalie Regoli is a seasoned writer, who is also our editor-in-chief. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.